GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids police officers were at a distinct, potentially life-threatening disadvantage when they got a call last week.
There had been an assault by a suicidal woman in a ninth-floor apartment. She had barricaded herself in her apartment and they couldn’t get eyes on her, Grand Rapids Police Department Chief Eric Winstrom said.
“Ransom Towers, ninth floor, an individual experiencing a severe mental health crisis was causing physical harm to herself with a hatchet, with a Bowie knife, and we had to somehow find a way to take her into custody without allowing her to kill herself or seriously injure or kill one of my police officers,” the chief said.
They couldn’t just peek in her window.
“It is easier, as you can imagine, if you have a view from a different angle,” the chief said. “She was ready to ambush these officers. She came directly at the officers.”
Without his own drone, the chief said his officers called the Kent County Sheriff’s Department, which flew one up to the ninth-floor window. He could also have asked police in neighboring Walker or Wyoming, which have their own drones.
“We were able to use that drone up on the ninth floor, and I was sitting in the command van, looking right into the window and we can say, ‘Hey, officers, she’s here, she’s there,'” Winstrom said. “So they were able to go in, effectively use a shield, less lethal, put her into custody and she was fine.”
She was hospitalized with self-inflicted cuts, he said.
The chief said it’s another example of why his drone-less department is asking the City Commission for half a dozen drones and to train 10 officers to fly them at an initial cost of $100,000. The police department hopes to ask the full commission to approve the proposal this spring or early summer.
Opponents objected at a recent city commission meeting.
“It’s important to note that the use of drones raises valid privacy concerns, as they’re seen as invasion of privacy and a form of intimidation of community members that are calling for accountability and transparency from our city officials,” a woman wearing a “defund” police shirt told commissioners.
Winstrom said the same group that has called for defunding his department is arguing against the drones.
“There are dozens, if not hundreds, of agencies, already in the state of Michigan that have had drones with zero issues,” he said. “There are towns as small as Big Rapids with 18 police officers; they have drones.”
He said the drones would help police reconstruct crime scenes and traffic crashes, find missing persons, help with barricaded suspect and, track fleeing felons and stolen cars.
“You can safely use a drone to follow a stolen vehicle a significant amount of way when having a police car chase that vehicle is extremely dangerous,” he said. “The concern from reasonable people that I’ve heard is overcollection of data. Are you going to be flying over my house? Looking in my windows and things like that? Of course, the answer is no, and then it’s a question of trust.”
He said his department would send any recordings to the city’s Office of Oversight and Public Accountability.
“If we were to implement this system, we would transfer all this data we’re collecting and give it to OPA for them to continually audit to make sure that we’re not violating anyone’s constitutional rights,” Winstrom said.